The Economics of Movie Reviews, or Why So Many Film Critics Continue to Lose Their Jobs
A few weeks ago, one of my honest-to-God favorite film critics on the Internet, Eric D. Snider — who has written for a lot of publications over the years (including, on occasion, this one) — tweeted the following:
I have two jobs. I am the publisher of this site, and I am a writer for Uproxx. When I saw that tweet, my first reaction was as a writer: “Yeah, f**k those guys. There’s value in good writing that goes beyond profits. Respect the craft, motherf*ckers!” But my second thought as a publisher was, “Well, actually, that’s kind of unfair.”
I suspect that Eric was referring to Entertainment Weekly or another corporate-owned publication, but whether it’s a corporate-owned website or an independently one, they are both in the business of either turning a profit or, at the very least, earning enough revenue to keep the doors to their websites open.
As much as the writer in me loathes the sentiment, the publisher in me also understands that a bottom line is a bottom line. I am paid to write for Uproxx, for instance, and though I aim to produce quality content geared toward a particular demographic, I also understand that most of my value as a contributor over there is tied up into my ability to generate traffic and therefore revenue, and thus justify what they pay me. They’re very good at what they do over there (and they have a much better business sense than I’ve got), they’re respectful of our abilities, and they give us the freedom to write what and how we please (within reason). It’s a good gig. Still, though no one on Uproxx has ever told me that my value is tied up in my ability to generate traffic, I have enough common sense to understand that if I cost more money to the company than I can create, my job would not necessarily be safe.
That brings me to the issue of film reviews, and the attitude among some that critics are entitled to be compensated by virtue of being good at their jobs.
I agree! … To an extent.
When I began Pajiba 10 years ago this month, we were exclusively a film review site. A year later, we began to add trade news, and within a couple of years — after I decided to turn Pajiba into my career — we began adding features, lists, celebrity coverage, think pieces, etc., etc. It’s a good thing, too, because the reviews that initially drew in our audience have lost considerable value over the years thanks to the fact that fewer people read film reviews (or any posts over 1,000 words) and instead refer to Metacritic, Twitter, or Rotten Tomatoes to decide whether to see a new movie. (Never mind that Rotten Tomatoes depends on those film reviews in order to generate a Tomatometer score and does not compensate the critics.)
Post-film discussion and response pieces still have a lot of value on the Internet, but the days of turning to your favorite critic to find out whether you should see Transformers: Age of Extinction are long over because most viewers inclined to see that movie know that Transformers: Age of Extinction is going to suck. They’re going to see it anyway. The online value is in talking about why it sucked afterwards.
As a result, while the art of film criticism is still very much appreciated, and on some outlets such as The Dissolve, appreciated enough presumably to turn a profit, for many of us, film reviews are a money loser. Reviews of those smaller, independent and art films that no one watches are particularly money-losers, even though they need reviews the most because, in many cases, it’s the most promotion they will get.
In fact, I can give you the exact figures for Pajiba: Of the 200+ reviews published during the past year, only 21 actually generated enough page views to pay for themselves. Keep in mind, too, that we are not a wealthy site, so we pay little to begin with, and the costs do not even take into account the time and expense it takes one of our writers to see a movie. They’re putting in three to five hours to produce a review, and roughly being paid minimum wage (and not even the Seattle minimum wage — the federal minimum wage). Moreover, probably half of those 21 reviews that made a profit also included some kind of gimmick or “amusing” conceit that attracted a larger readership. (Sadly, the most read review on our site in the last year was not a well-written deconstruction of an excellent art film, but this one: 25 Things I Saw While Watching Grown Ups 2 That I Can’t Unsee.)
This may not be true for all sites, of course, but I suspect that the reason why there is so much turnover in the world of film criticism is that other sites have discovered that there’s much more traffic in writing about Shailene Woodley’s views on feminism/humanism than reviewing The Raid 2. But f*ck those guys, right? How dare they prioritize traffic numbers over the art and sophistry of good film criticism. Clickbaitin’ asshole!
Well, kind of.
I mean, look: We are not a huge, corporate-owned site, and we are solid enough after a decade of plugging away that we could survive a bad month. But we probably couldn’t survive three bad months. The money that is spent staffing Pajiba does not come from a well of corporate profits; like a lot of independent sites, it ultimately comes out of an individual’s bank account (that individual being me). During the past two years, I’ve taken out a loan against the company and liquidated a retirement fund from an old job to ensure I can continue to do this for as long as possible (the twins didn’t help, obviously). No one who writes for this site is earning what they deserve for the time and effort they put into it, so if we don’t review Roman Polanski’s French film, Venus in Fur, in two weeks, it’s not because we’re trying to “save” money. It’s because we can’t afford the loss.
Yet, we still very much have every intention of continuing to review 200-plus films a year. But the reason why we can do that is because the critics here provide a lot more than movie reviews. They don’t just review films; they recap shows, and they cover the trailer beat, and they write pieces on the evolution of superhero movies or rant about Zack Snyder or bitch about Jonah Hill’s homophobic slur. In other words, they earn their value in other ways, while most of the other feature and celebrity writers make up the difference. We absorb the losses because we respect, admire, and appreciate the value of film criticism enough to do so, because we are not greedy, because the critics here love to write film reviews, and because I like to think that our readers appreciate that they exist, even if they are not always well-read. (And damnit, occasionally the reviews even matter in terms of whether or not someone actually watches a movie.)
Still, it sucked that Entertainment Weekly laid off their long-term film critic Owen Gleiberman earlier this year, and it especially smarts because his salary was a tiny, tiny drop in the bucket compared to what Time Warner earns quarterly. But the reason they laid him off was probably the same reason smaller sites such as Film.com, Cinematical, or bigger outlets such as AOL, MSN Movies and others have laid off critics over the years. It wasn’t to save money, and it wasn’t because they were bad film critics. It was so they could stop losing money. Critics, as good as they are, and as valuable as they are to some people, are not entitled to the right to sink a company, although it is obviously nice if a site has enough resources to offset the loss and continue to feature film criticism.
So, this is my advice to those who might want to be film critics someday: Learn how to do a lot of other things, even things that you might consider beneath your talents, and maybe one day you can earn enough value with those other tasks to justify the expense of reviewing films. There are not a lot of Roger Eberts left in the world — those who can make a living reviewing films — but there are some Matt Zoller Seitzes and Alyssa Rosenbergs and Mike Ryans and Matt Singers, critics with more to offer than simply film reviews.